“Yes”, I say, “Fantastic”. “What does that entail exactly?”
RAF Museum – “You can write about anything you like….”
Wow, sounds like a dream doesn’t it? One small problem, I don’t know a lot about the First World War and I don’t know a lot about aircraft. If you say to someone First World War, they think of the trenches; mud, dirt, and blood, slow drawn out combat. They don’t think about open skies, innovation and a spirit of adventure. This is a story that you don’t hear, this is a story that needs to be told, but where do I begin?
From the moment I walked into the Grahame-White Factory which houses the RAF Museums’ brand new permanent exhibition a few weeks ago, I was blown away by the beautiful aircraft. The hanger was cold, wires and equipment was strewn across the floor, men working, hard hats on. There was no interpretation, no display cases, just large beautiful aeroplanes, silent, sitting, waiting. I don’t know the names of these planes, I walk round, they seem so flimsy to my eyes; canvas, wood, landing gear that looks like it came from a bicycle. My first thought is you would be mad to fly these things, let alone take part in any sort of combat. The cockpits are so open and vulnerable, the wings are so delicate, they are like sculptures not weapons of war.
When I was young we spent many summers at the Biggin Hill Air Fair. My favourite was always the Vulcan Bomber, the raw power, the massive delta wing, the ground would shake. I would stand there with my Dad, a massive smile on my face, my hands over my ears. It seems a million miles away from what I am looking at now. They seem so old-fashioned, a relic from the past, how do we reconnect to these objects, how do we listen to the stories they are waiting to tell us?
Over tea and biscuits I met Peter Devitt, a curator at the museum. I spoke of my initial impressions, but he told me that to those early pilots, those brave pioneers, these planes would have been cutting edge, they would have been the latest technology. Suddenly I look at them in a new light, I imagine the excitement they must have felt, this was a new frontier, this was the ability to soar above the ground. What a potent mix of emotions they must have felt, I can’t wait to see what this exhibition will tell me, not only about the aircraft of the First World War, but those early pilots too.
Back in September I planted a poppy at the Tower of London as part of the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ installation by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper. It was a memorable day for lots of reason, perhaps the most important part of the day was realising that I don’t know enough about World War One. I know some names, some battles, some places, but I don’t know enough. How can we honour a sacrifice, heed the warnings from history, if we don’t listen to those voices from the past and don’t hear their stories?
I am so privileged and excited to be working at the RAF Museum, for me it is not just about those aircraft, it is about all the objects and the archives that go with them. It is about being given an opportunity to learn from all the staff and volunteers at the museum, to hear their passion, understand their roles in preserving the history not only of the World War One but of early aviation and the birth of the Royal Air Force. They have a duty and a responsibility to not only look after these objects but to tell their story too.
So whilst I don’t know it all, I really hope my passion and curiosity, my excitement and enthusiasm will be infectious. I hope you will come along for the ride, there are so many stories I can’t wait to tell you. You might already know about the Sopwith Camel and the Albatros, about von Richthofen and Claude Grahame-White. But I hope tales of dressing mannequins in original RFC regalia are new to you and the volunteer hours spent on restoring an emergency air field beacon are of interest. Perhaps most of all, I hope you come and visit as I did on that sunny November morning, come and see these beautiful aircraft, these sculptured works of art, let them live again and soar in the skies of your mind as we keep the legacy and the sacrifice alive.
‘First World War in the Air’ is the new permanent exhibition at the RAF Museum, Hendon. Opening 4th Dec 2014, for more information visit the website – http://www.rafmuseum.org.uk